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Backyard Bobwhite: Part 4

Release the Birds

It’s a bitter sweet day. The quail project we conceived in the spring (Part 1) is winding down as the leaves begin descending and first frosts are painting the pasture. We’ve gotten attached to these birds, invested in their condition, entertained by their antics. We’re just a few zip ties away from that being gone.

Our Bobwhite are 17 weeks old, fully grown for the most part and well fed. A good comparison point; quail released on shooting preserves or used for field trials are often 12-15 weeks old. Our birds look big, bigger than most wild Bobs I’ve shot. Their caretaker (my dad) has seen to it that they have not been lacking.

Only two of the original 35 chicks were lost to a farm cat that found a weakness in our pen very early on which we quickly rectified. The hope is that they’ve imprinted on the area by now, recognize the cover and benefits of the food plot and have been exposed to enough attempted yet unsuccessful predation that they still know danger.

The birds still act cagey as we prepare to loose them, diving to the remaining cover in the pen which has been well trampled after three months of captivity. The female birds appear more wild than the males who number 10-11. It’s tough to get a truly accurate breakdown because they scatter so quickly.

Our ideas of micro-conservation are still evolving. Trial by fire. Our plan has received best wishes and scoffing alike. Biologist friends have doomed our ambitions as folly. They are the experts, we’re the underdogs. So be it. The experts have made little to no progress in Bobwhite restoration efforts in over four decades. Could it possibly be time to start thinking differently?

Regardless the outcome, whether our birds run the gauntlet of winter and predation to spring, let’s go over the facts of what has  already been accomplished:

• We returned an area of yard, useless fescue, to wildlife habitat and lessened the amount of mowing and upkeep required.

• We tried out a seed mix to see how it would perform with minimal equipment, hand seeding and no supplemental fertilizer. The cover and food resulting from this effort have been fairly impressive, but the hand seeding was a bit thick and caused most of the sunflower to get choked out. We may look at additional mixes and are interested to see what happens to the plot in winter and spring.

• We tested an inexpensive pen of our own design to see if it could allow birds to feed from the ground, keep birds safe and predators at bay with mixed results. We’ll likely make adjustments to our design, but it was a good starting point.

• We used multiple food sources, learning what the birds liked most and weaning them without mishap from game bird meal to seeds and worms which they will need to find in order to survive on their own. Dried meal worms seem to be the biggest winner, followed by a seed mix that contained thistle. We also learned these little birds eat a lot, way more than we expected.

• We’ve gotten friends and young people (grandchildren, nieces, nephews) who have never seen a quail before interested in the species and invested in their survival. They would likely otherwise never see a Bobwhite in Ohio in their lifetime.

• Most importantly, we started a debate about upland conservation. And more of these conversations are needed.

We refuse to be told our efforts are in vain because we have facts that tell us otherwise. Our small group of birds may not survive, but our resolve certainly will. We will continue to explore micro-conservation because it seems the only true, long-term path forward.

Good luck little Bobwhite. Hope to see you soon.

 

 

Backyard Bobwhite: Part 3

8 week old Bobwhite

Educating birds, or Educating Us

It’s been just over a month since we added 35 young Bobwhite to our small flight pen. The birds are now approaching 10 weeks of age and in a couple more weeks we should start to see their adult colors and get a better idea of the gender mix of our population.

We learned very quickly that the soft sided netting at ground level was not going to be sufficient to repel farm cats. And then there were 33. But it was a good lesson to learn early before attempts by more wild and nefarious predators could be made under cover of darkness. Some quick adjustments to the pen with some wire mesh seem to have improved security and we’ve not lost another bird to date.

Young quail eat a lot. They have no problems pseudo-foraging for food which we’re broadcasting on the ground. Meal worms seem to be the most highly prized energy source which makes sense because of the high protein requirements for young birds. Grasshoppers or crickets unfortunate enough to wander into the pen are quickly divided as well.

The cover and food plot continue to thrive in the wet Ohio summer and grain yields should fair quite nicely this fall. In the interim it provides good hides within the pen that the Bobs seem to enjoy. It is astonishing how quickly 30 birds can disappear in such a small enclosure.

It’s become clear these birds will not be made truly wild as we once hoped. They have imprinted on their primary caretaker, my dad, and he has taken to them as well. This might be concerning if there was a thought we ever intended to “hunt” these quail. But the goal is not to have strong flyers for shooting. The goal is to have fat healthy birds that stand a chance of surviving a rough winter. Our wild bird plan has become multigenerational.

If we can shield some birds from the clutches of a deadly winter and all the peril therein, a breeding in spring will produce hatchlings that have never known a pen or the charity of a free meal.

So the bar has moved. We’re learning and hopefully our quail are as well. They still demonstrate wild tendencies to evade and hide. But the dinner bell strikes a powerful chord that trumps most fears. Maybe when the seeds begin dropping after the first frost and we open the pen, the provider of food will become less important.

For now we’ll just hope luck remains on our side and we can keep birds healthy and growing to the satisfaction of the old man and quail alike.

Backyard Bobwhite: Part 1

Is the key to restoring quail right out your back door?

I grew up in small farming community in rural Northeast Ohio. It’s not considered an upland bird hot spot. But I still remember seeing wild quail when I was a kid. And I’ve verified this with others from the area. Bobwhite used to inhabit the hedge rows and fence lines.

Then came the blizzard in January of 1978. In Ohio it produced wind speeds of 70+ mph and wind chills dropped below -60° F. Depending where you lived the snowfall reached over 30″ with drifts that were epic. I remember digging a snow tunnel directly out the backdoor that I could stand up in (I was still just a little guy). This storm killed over 50 people in the state of Ohio. It also killed nearly every quail. And their comeback has been slow to nonexistent.

There’s still a Bobwhite hunting season in 16 Ohio counties primarily in the southwest where populations have hung on. The Ohio DNR has taken shots at expanding these quail territories by trapping live birds in areas of Ohio with decent population and seeding them to counties further north with cooperation from private landowners. The state also has attempted restoring Bobwhite on public lands by transplanting wild birds trapped in Kansas. Those seem like good plans but public funding for this type of program is getting sparse. Quail aren’t the high-profile, high-draw return on investment that big game and turkey are these days.

Bobwhite Quail range tends to expand at a snail’s pace, by most accounts about 1/4 mile per year. With annual mortality rates above 80% it could take centuries under the best case scenarios for quail of southern Ohio to populate the rest of the state. That’s not going to happen on public land alone.

Every year we receive messages and posts from fans asking what they can do to help conserve upland birds. And the stock answer always seems to be pay dues to the large conservation organizations, and attend their banquets. But dues and banquets leave many unsatisfied. Cutting a check doesn’t make some feel invested in conservation.

Chapters of Pheasants/ Quail Forever are active and do good work attracting people to upland sports. But the focus in this area seems to be improving hunting habitat on public lands where wild birds don’t exist. When birds are released into these tracts the hunting might be wonderful, the bird survival is another story.

That’s bothered me.

And that’s when the wheels started turning. How does someone who doesn’t own massive tracts of land or have millions of dollars positively and actively impact upland bird conservation?

Bobwhite are the perfect candidate species for micro-conservation. They are small birds, with relatively small resource requirements that prefer a home territory.

Most of my childhood was spent on our family farm. My parents still live there. My dad taught my sisters and I how to mow around the age of 11. He’d gas up the mowers and turn us loose to shear the 8 acres that run around the house, outbuildings and orchard. It was a biweekly chore during the summers. Now that we’re all grown the mowing has fallen back to dad and now he’s recruiting the grandkids.

But those new recruits have sports and swim meets and much more important pulls on their time that require a granddad to attend that make a manicured lawn seem less important. And dad is no longer a spring chicken.

This winter we began hatching a plan to lighten the mowing load and reintroduce the Bobwhite back to our homestead without breaking the bank. The goal is to map out steps for an individual (or two) to run their own habitat and reintroduction process with minimal land requirements. We’ll document all costs, obstacles and success or lack of. And if all else fails at least dad will have less to yard to upkeep.

We identified an area at the back of the farm totaling around a half-acre that dad is willing to give up mowing.  This plot sits between a small old orchard and two sets of evergreen trees. It offers great cover from the elements, a nearby creak for water and is close enough to the house to limit exposure to predators as well.

The first step is to return it to good quail habitat . In Ohio the largest obstacle for quail success is access to food over the winter. There’s still plenty of grain agriculture around, but cover along fence lines that have been traditional habitat is becoming non-existent. Commodity prices are too high for farmers to allow land to sit untilled. But lawns, good lord there are plenty of manicured yards. If farming is going to take up the quail’s habitat then let’s give it back one square foot of lawn at a time.

I am a bird hunter, not a biologist. But I know a thing or two about these birds that I’ve pursued for decades. I know the types of areas and habitat where the dogs and I have found quail. With a little tilling and cultivation we can transform yard into that type of area. It won’t fulfill all the requirements of a Bobwhite’s life cycle. But by my account most of those requirements they can still fulfill on their own. The winter food source close to good cover is the crux in this state.

The week prior to Memorial Day we tilled our plot and hand seeded a game bird mix containing sunflower, millets, and sorghum seed. We also took down an old apple tree that’s been crowding some pears in the orchard. We utilized those limbs to stack three massive brush piles for the birds to eventually use as dense protective cover. The hope is this will become the home base for our quail, putting everything they need within a very small area so that they have every motivation to stay and thrive.

It was a full day of hard work. And now there is more to come.

But that’s for the next installment: Making a cost effective quail pen and our plans to train pen-raised quail for survival in the wild.